Purposeful Tangents with Derek Ballard

Purposeful Tangents with Derek Ballard

What is a Tangent?
In visual art terms, a tangent is any area in a drawing where elements of the composition are interacting in a confusing or illusion-destroying manner. Cartoonists who use linework are particularly suspect to tangents, although tangents plague everyone who creates visual art. Tangents, and the avoidance of tangents, are one of the most difficult concepts to learn as a visual artist…A person only knows them when they see them, and they’re specific to the piece at hand, so what a tangent really is depends on context. Clearing up tangents is one of the steps used to make a piece simple and clear, easy to comprehend. Here is one example of a tangent that has to do with clipping a character in a composition:

Typically, only certain parts of the body can be cropped without creating a confusing tangent. The example here shows how cropping just below the shoulders and in the middle of the arm retain the clarity of the pose. However, doing something like cropping the fingers causes ambiguity — Is the hand going into something offscreen? How is the character gesturing? I also like to portray the body-chopping aspect of tangents because this one is not only visual but also heavily context-driven!

As communicators, and providers of commercial art, visual artists are beholden to avoid tangents. Once eyes are trained to look for them, tangents are everywhere! Visual artists develop habits and styles to avoid them. For the most part, the reader benefits. Business as usual, eliminate tangents, increase legibility. Exercise control over the piece, the message.

But then I get something like this in my email about some upcoming short course through SAW…

And I start wondering, am I being too deliberate with my work? Is my style causing me exquisitely angsty artistical suffering, instead of allowing me to be productive? With a sigh, I sent Tom Hart more of my money, and signed up to meet Derek Ballard, who not only has a graphic novel called CHOREOGRAPH, but whose credits include storyboards/writing on Adventure Time, Midnight Gospel, and an upcoming animated series on Netflix.

Derek comes from a strong comics background that was the gateway to his career in animation. His work was spotted at a comics gallery which led to an art test with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time team. For our first exercise as a small group, Derek gave us big chunky sound effects and speech bubbles on a grid of panels. We were tasked with inventing a story (characters, setting, dialogue) that incorporated the speech bubbles and sound effects in their original spaces.

Here was what I filled in from the time I had to draw stuff during the zoom call:

The whole time, I was thinking about, not only the ideas of using limited repetitive graphical elements (such as daisies in a field) to imply setting beyond the panel without drawing every last detail, but also this piece of art again:

I couldn’t get over how carefree the rendering was, and how much space it implied beyond the panel as a result. So, this resulted in Pierre getting his heel messily chopped by the border of the panel. Comparing the tangent that this created to something that I’d normally consider more ‘professional’ and the difference is really interesting to me! I’ve also blocked in the white space that the field creates as a result of how I crop the character sitting there.

Would the post-Iliad adventures of Achilles gone differently if he’d simply had his weak spot cropped out of the panel? Guess I’ll write fanfiction.

The next thing we did was to generate contextless comic panels that still seemed like they were part of one story, as fast as possible, really loose and fun. I focused on making panels ‘weird’ with Canicula and doing more odd crops. Then we were instructed to draw a story that made sense with our random, contextless panels. Absolutely everyone who did this assignment had a different take on it. I’m going to assume the open-endedness was on purpose.

Here was my initial lineup of panels. The flat color backgrounds reassure me that I can totally be lazy about some panels if I need it!

After we made the panels, we were asked to shuffle panels around and see how they affected story beats, seen above.  Depending on where I put that one big dramatic ‘Ha’ coming from Canicula’s mouth, the joke landed differently. Really nice to have ‘revision’ crop up in a class. Revisions are a constant for any professional visual artist. Normally revisions are shunned by shorter, casual classes, or classes more focused on self expression and art therapy, but Derek is a pro and wanted to show us all some pro techniques for situations that pros regularly handle. I really appreciated that.

So, Should My Comics Look Scribblier?
To my ultimate discomfort, it was revealed that my comics are indeed enjoyable if I just scrawl them out and not worry about smooth lines and coloring. So I’m still sitting with that and fidgeting. I don’t want personal pride to keep me from making more comics, but…Should I toss some of my previous art standards to the wind before I commit too heavily to something that might be keeping me from completing my projects?

Quickly! I’m feeling uncomfortable! To the self-deprecation chamber! 

You may be wondering, what’s the ah, kicker in all this? Well, after the class when I set out to find the cool panel design that had inspired me to be messier again, I found out that my interpretation of this panel of Derek’s work was in total error. The full composition of that panel actually looks like this:

So yeah…The original panel art that caught my eye wasn’t cropped weirdly at all. I didn’t even perceive the original artwork correctly. I actually don’t know where my perception of this panel came from. Maybe the emailed newsletter cropped it. Maybe I looked at it on the Patreon banner. Who knows? Experimenting from a completely mis-intended crop but still coming to an interesting conclusion? You could say, I sure went on a tangent! (Tinned laugh track).

For more of Derek Ballard’s incredible comics work, check out his Patreon.

Comics Tip

When to Letter a Comic
Comics are a synthesis of words and pictures. While they can vary between the extremes of a picture book vs. a wordless ‘silent’ comic vs. a full prose book, in general: Lettering is a necessary step for making your comic legible. Knowing when and how to do it is key for a clean comics-reading experience. Working with Derek reminded me that the order a comic is composed makes a difference and depends on the limitations and circumstances involved.

As a professional letterer, I will frequently get blank pages that need the script broken up and laid out on top of the artwork. Depending on the artist and the type of job, this has varying degrees of difficulty. Some artists are better at estimating the space for letters than others. Some script edits are wordier than others. Most of the time, I can fit any text using clipping, squishing the typeface by 6%, tightening the leading, and masking shapes behind character artwork. The other times, I query the editor, who changes the text. In very rare circumstances, the edit goes back to the artist to make room for the text. It’s far easier to change the layout or the text itself first, though! My work on the Riverdale Diaries was like this.

When localizing an existing comic into another language, I won’t have as much control over the shapes of speech bubbles. It’s my job to figure out the optimal font size in lieu of hard information from the original comic letterer. Sometimes I have to edit the speech bubbles themselves, but I avoid it whenever I can. I usually do localization with an FPO (For Placement Only) 90% opacity white layer between my text and the original comic before turning off the original lettering. This way I can line up the text on top of the original letters and more closely mimic the original comic’s feel. My work on Dog Man (Hombre Perro) was like this, and so is my work on the Spanish editions of Cat Kid Comics Club.

When I letter on my own, I letter immediately after thumbnailing and creating starter panels in InDesign. I can then export the pages as templates for drawing roughs. I always know exactly how much room my letters take up and, as a bonus, I can edit them without bothering an editor. In general, text is less flexible than art to move around. By lettering first I don’t have to guess how much space the words take up — I know for sure what room I have to draw my characters and settings! My work on Warlock’d, RAWR! Dinosaur Friends, and an upcoming third pitch are all made this way. It’s easier for me since I’m the entire creative team.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

A Dungeon of Little Dragons

A Dungeon of Little Dragons

My graphic novel characters from left to right: Pierre in his red robe and black cape with gold trim, Margo hovering as her barn swallow self near Canicula's nose, Canicula smacking his mace against one hand while decked out in sumptuous furs, and Lebeau, charging in from the right in their secondhand armor.

‘Fieschi Psalter’, Cambrai ca. 1290-1295.
Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, Walters Manuscript W.45, fol. 256v

Fox Dragon
Reynard? Is that you? You look a little different. A little foxier than normal. Please don’t tell me you’re the harbinger of the Revelation. What would Ysengrim think?

 

 

Digital artwork of an emu-like dragon, with a sheep's head on a long neck attached to a blue body with white spots down its back. It has a furry tail. The legs are gray and stripy with fur covering the toes and heels. A little spig of flowers springs from the heel of the dragon.‘The Maastricht Hours’, Liège 14th century British Library, Stowe 17, fol. 182v

Sheep Dragon
Leg warmers were a thing 650 years ago, I swear.

 

 

Luttrell Psalter, England ca. 1325-1340. British Library, Add 42130, fol. 178r

Lion Dragon
Look, sometimes an apex predator rocks the soft baby pinks and blues. There’s no reason to get mad about it. It’s almost like someone got the description of a lion spot-on right up to the shoulders and then gave up. Whatever — do you know how many people will leave the abbey to go look at a lion way down south in person? That’s right. Not many. So lions are pink and blue now, and they wear comfortable hats. Deal with it.

 

Re-draw of a medieval illustration of a long, snakey green dragon with red lion paws and pink wings with stripes. The dragon has antlers and flowers for a tail. On its head is an extremely phallic hat. There's no getting around it.pontifical, Avignon ca. 1330-1340
 Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. Diocèse 8, fol. 59r

Hat Dragon
I have so many questions about this dragon. One of those questions is not what the hat is supposed to be. I don’t want to know anything about this dragon’s hat. Instead, I will focus on this being the world’s tiniest dragon obsessing over its hoard of a single copper penny, which telekinetically floats nearby.

 

 

Digital artwork of a large, purple, four-legged dragon with human feet sharing an even purpler tongue with a yellow winged cat dragon. The purple dragon has six extra heads in its collar and they all look like they're whining. It's also wearing bunny slippers on its back feet. Its front feet have weird sandals that blend into its skin. The cat dragon, meanwhile, only has one extra head, which is on its long winding tail, and that head looks really annoyed.

Beatus of Liébana, Commentarius in Apocalypsin, Astorga 12th century
BnF, Nouvelle acquisition latine 1366, fol. 106v


What is Even Going on Here?!??

This must be the end of the world. That’s the only explanation I have. I didn’t feel like drawing the Schmooze in the corner there so this dragon gets a comfy pair of slippers.

Comics Tip

Designing a Dragon
Say you’ve got a story that calls for a dragon. The first thing to do is figure out what function that dragon serves in the story. Is it a pet? Is it a steed? Is it a friend? Is it a foe? Is it a wild beast? Is it bigger, or smaller, than a breadbox? Can it speak or coexist peacefully with humans? Does it represent something beyond being a mythical creature, such as the greed and cruelty of mankind, or the vengeance of the natural world?

Or do you just want a dragon that looks super cool*?

*Dragon ‘coolness’ as the result of this exercise may be subjective!

Digital artwork of three possible dragon silhouettes. The first is serpentine with bat wings and a snake tail, with little tiny paws and feet. The second is an upright armadillo with an ankylosaur tail. The third is some sort of bird with four wings and a feathery tail and frills on the head.

Step One: Silhouettes
Regardless of how big your dragon is, the first thing you’ll want is a Shape for it to fit into. Grab a marker and scratch down some rough poses and proportions for your dragon. Don’t worry about details at this point, just get a broad picture of its shape and size. Try to think about how the dragon would move. Maybe it’s very agile, or more of a tank. Can it fly? If not wings, include a visual of how it alights in the air. If it’s a more literal animal, it will look a bit different than if it’s the figment of a child’s imagination. Same for magical beasts having more leeway for fanciness and silliness than most real-animal analogues for dragons.

Digital artwork of three possible dragon heads, rendered as black scribbled silhouettes. The first is a smooth reptile. The second is more horselike with bumps and ears. The third is clearly a beaked creature with a feathered plume.

In addition tvo the overall body, it pays to figure out how the dragon’s head will look. Is it capable of expressing emotions, or does it need to express emotions within the story? Are its emotions clear or are they buried under the complexities of being a different species from humans? Explore that.

Digital artwork of one of the dragon silhouettes, with the armadillo body and beak head as our go-to. The dragon has been rendered three times, sporting a horn and T. rex claws in the first, fins in the second, and lots of wings and feathers and raptor claws in the third.

If you have a head shape and a body shape that you like, explore spines, fins, fur, and hair. Maybe the dragon has many limbs, or an unusual tail.

Digital sketch, done very quickly, of a comic page containing a dragon. It has three panels: One with a dragon trotting through the forest. The second panel is a closeup of the dragon's eye spotting something. The third panel is a breakout panel of the dragon discovering a baby and picking up, so it's a good thing I designed it to have opposable thumbs.

Step Two: Try it Out
My controversial take is that it pays to see if the overall shape and size of the dragon works in terms of the comic prior to doing any detail work outside of the silhouette. Try drawing the silhouette version next to characters and in environments you have planned for your story. This is also why concept art sometimes looks different from the actual comic. I think it’s important to get a sense of how the big parts of the creature function in the story prior to working out the finer details.

 

Step Three: Integument Refinement
While still thinking about how your dragon works in your comic’s world, experiment with showing how it sees, smells, tastes, and touches the world. A zoo is an excellent place to scope animals and observe how they’re built and how they move through the world.

Various photos of different scales. A lizard, an armadillo, an eagle's claw, a grasshopper, a betta fish, and a pineapple are all examples of scales that would look interesting on a dragon.
For instance, a dragon is not limited to reptilian scales. Check out some mammalian, avian, insectlike, and fish coverings, too. Maybe even plants!

Photos of the following animal attributes: A big eagle's eye, a dog's paw in a human hand, a skull of a theropod dinosaur, and whiskers on a white kitten's face.
Can your dragon see in the dark? Its eye shape will be different depending on how it senses the world around it. Think about its other senses. How sensitive is its skin? A large nasal cavity means it might be able to sniff prey from a long way away. If it has whiskers, maybe it loses its balance from losing those whiskers, like a cat does.

Photos of an alligator's closed mouth with tons of teeth sticking out, as well as a bear's paw with long black claws poking out.
How does the dragon protect itself, and what does it eat? This will affect tooth and claw shape, and whether it can grasp things like humans can.

Photos of fire, a field of white flowers, a big towering cloud, and the purple reaches of outer space with tons of stars.
Is the dragon ethereal? Maybe it has primordial elements mixed in, such as fire, flowers, clouds, or stars. Each body part tells a story about the rest of the creature, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘realistic’. It’s a dragon, after all. Have some fun for once in your life, gosh.

Three possible color schemes for my dragon design. For my overall silhouette I chose an upright armadillo dragon with feathery wings, a hairy chest, feathers on its claws, a beaked face and horn on its nose. Color scheme one is monochromatic blues, number two is yellows, greens, and oranges, and the third one is a pale grey dragon with red eyes and black tongue.

Step Four: Color!
Depending on what the rest of your comic looks like, you will need to decide whether your dragon sticks out or blends into the background. Stories involving dragons as ‘alien’ or ‘other’ may opt for brightly-colored dragons. Sneaky dragons will need camouflage. Pet dragons might be more likely to have specific color morphs, like the ones seen in snake or pigeon enthusiast communities.

Step Five: Revision
At any point in the process, a change might need to be made to the dragon’s design. Most changes simplify a design so that it’s easier to draw and color over and over again. Better to do that early before the dragon exists in dozens, if not hundreds, of panels. I personally find it more difficult to edit a design the further along it is in development. That’s why having extra versions of the design lying around are so useful. Those can offer easier solutions to big problems that come from an extreme revision to the design at the end of a project.

So there you go! There’s really no wrong way to go with a magical dragon because it doesn’t exist in the first place!

Creative commons dragon reference photos generously provided by pixabay.com.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?